A Beatles Trail in England

One superfan gallivants across London and Liverpool on a nostalgic musical pilgrimage.  
Beatles (London/Liverpool) 3
Liverpool has certainly capitalised on its Beatles connection with Magical Mystery bus tours and the Hard Day’s Night Hotel. Photo by: Album Online/Indiapicture (Beatles), noriokanisawa/iStock /Getty Images Plus/Getty Images (background)

The epiphany that I was a Beatles fan came in my early teens, and it was like experiencing one’s first heady taste of ale—I just knew this was something special. Considering I was born three weeks after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the album that changed the sound of pop music—and three weeks before the launch of All You Need Is Love, it seems I was destined to be a diehard Beatles fan. Of course it helped that the music is so damn good.

When John Lennon was shot I wrote a condolence letter to his widow Yoko Ono, spending all my pocket money on the postage from Sweden to New York; a decade later Paul McCartney played nearby where I lived in Gothenburg, so I volunteered to work at the arena just to get a chance to say “Hello, Goodbye.” When I travelled through India I always thought of George Harrison, a fellow Indophile like myself. I even heard a story from an old hippie in Goa who claimed to have partaken in a mountain of ‘Colombian marching powder’ with Ringo Starr. They became like my extended family. So, it followed that I should travel with them when I went on my first visit to England.

 

A Day in My Life

Topmost on my agenda when I arrived in London was to take the underground to the neat and outlying Saint John’s Wood. It isn’t named after Lennon, but the station boasts a Beatles-inspired coffee shop, selling the essential ‘I crossed Abbey Road’ badge. About half a kilometre away sits the legendary Abbey Road Studios (3 Abbey Road) where The Beatles cut many hits, as did other supergroups from Pink Floyd and Queen to U2.

Beatles (London/Liverpool) 2

The iconic Abbey Road album was supposed to be titled Everest, featuring a shot of the band and the mountain, but The Beatles were too lazy for a photo-op in Nepal. Photo by: Madzia71/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

But I didn’t see any pop star step out humming a hit, and truth be told it was a fairly anonymous dirty-white building, which was a bit of a let-down. However, the main draw was in front of the studios: to my knowledge, the only zebra-crossing that has been bestowed a heritage monument status. Once the tourists in front of me finished taking selfies, I tap-danced across like a Beatle gone solo, dodging cars in the manner of a second-rate bullfighter, realising it would’ve been better to come on a Sunday when London nurses its collective hangover.

Afterwards, I took the tube to Baker Street and headed to London’s main Beatles souvenir shop—advertising its opening hours as “Eight Days a Week.” Incidentally, in the late 1960s The Beatles themselves ran their own trendy, yet short-lived, Apple Store at 94 Baker Street when they diversified into design, but the venture was a commercial failure.

 

My Magical Mystery Tour

Beatles (London/Liverpool) 4

Lennon would gambol on the grounds of Strawberry Fields as a youngster (top); The Beatles were one of the rare guest groups actually paid to go on The Ed Sullivan Show (bottom left); While shooting A Hard Day’s Night George Harrison accidentally fell down at Marylebone Station (bottom right) while being chased by fans, a scene kept in the film. Photos by: AmyLaughinghouse/iStock Editorial/getty images (strawberry field), Richard Levine/Alamy/indiapicture (studio), Martin Philpott / Alamy/indiapicture (station)

My next destination was the Marylebone station around the corner from Baker Street, which features in the opening sequence of the 1964 movie, A Hard Day’s Night; it was also where Liverpool trains terminated, making it The Beatles’ entry point to London. As I walked about, I got the feeling that almost every other building had something to do with them. Not far from the station, Starr rented an apartment at 34 Montagu Square, where Yoko Ono and Lennon lived one summer. The blue heritage placard sits high up on the wall so that no souvenir-hunter can nick the marker of the abode where the nude cover photo for Lennon’s first solo album Two Virgins (1968) was shot.

The headquarters of Apple Records, the label they started at 3 Savile Row, is long gone, yet I wasn’t the only fan gawking at the rooftop. It was there the concert movie Let It Be was canned during The Beatles’ last public performance on a cold January day in 1969. A spectacle that irritated neighbours so much that they called the bobbies, who, as can be seen in the film, ended the historical event unceremoniously. But at least they won an Academy Award for best original soundtrack!

While both Lennon and Harrison have moved on to the big studio in the sky, one might spot Sir McCartney outside his offices in Soho Square. It’s a discreet building but keep an eye out for the ‘mpl’ over the glass doors (McCartney Productions Limited), the company that holds his copyrights. I also sauntered past 7 Cavendish Avenue, where Macca has lived since the 1960s, with high hopes he might step out for a quick puff of his once-preferred herb. And, of course, I tracked down the address where actress Jane Asher used to live, whom McCartney dated before marrying Linda Eastman. Once when he slept over at her place on 57 Wimpole Street, he woke up ravenous and came up with a song called Scrambled Eggs. The melody was great but lyrics sucked, so he rewrote it as Yesterday—which remains one of the most covered songs in the world.

I didn’t have time to go to the British Library where Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for Strawberry Fields Forever are on display, nor the rock’n’roll museum at the Old Park Lane branch of Hard Rock Café that preserves Lennon’s specs—Liverpool beckoned. As I squinted out at the foggy British landscape from the coach window, I thought back on my years of Beatlemania.

My Long and Winding Road

One of its most extreme moments was in Athens, Greece, where I found the band’s sandal maker near Monastiraki Square and bought exactly the same footwear that Lennon had (I even wore them as I wrote this piece). On my first trip to India in the early 1990s, I immediately checked out the Rikhi Ram & Sons shop at Connaught Place, Delhi, where Harrison bought a sitar, sarod, and tanpura to use on Beatles’ recordings, before I headed to Rishikesh where they meditated in 1968. In Bombay, I snuck into the Taj Mahal Palace hotel where, in 1966, Harrison took sitar classes from Ravi Shankar. The hotel has since renamed his room ‘The Ravi Shankar Suite,’ though before I could get a peek inside the security promptly threw me out as I was dressed too much like the Beatles, hippie style. On that trip, Harrison also visited the actual Taj Mahal in Agra to click an iconic selfie—perhaps the world’s first actual selfie.

Beatles (London/Liverpool) 1

At The Grapes fans can still pregame like the Fab Four. Photo by: Quynh Anh Nguyen/Moment Unreleased/Getty Images

On my maiden U.S. trip, later in the 1990s, I made sure to land at J.F.K. rather than Newark just because that was where the four first set their eight feet on American soil in 1964 and went on to hold a hilarious airport press conference. Their U.S. debut concert was at Carnegie Hall, followed by a TV broadcast from the Ed Sullivan theatre on 1697 Broadway, watched by one quarter of the American population (which poses the question, what on earth were the rest doing?). I certainly went to Madison Square Garden where Lennon performed live for the last time ever in 1974 together with Elton John. My NYC walk ended at 72nd Street, at the corner of Central Park West, where he used to live in an apartment building amongst celebrity neighbours, such as, actress Lauren Bacall and composer Leonard Bernstein. It was right at the entrance that Lennon was shot down returning from a late-night studio session by a demented fan. A three-acre memorial garden called ‘Strawberry Fields’ pays tribute across the road in Central Park.

 

Here, There and in Liverpool

Happier days awaited in Liverpool, as I took a bus to the Woolton suburb riddled with places reminiscent of the Beatles. On 251 Menlove Avenue, I tracked down Lennon’s childhood home, Mendip’s—a 1930s semi-detached villa now owned by the U.K.’s National Trust. As a kid he would play guitar on the porch and amuse himself at the nearby Strawberry Field orphanage. The McCartney family home on 20 Forthlin Road is also managed by the trust. Other hotspots include Penny Lane and the parish church where Lennon-McCartney originally teamed up in 1957 (and where a woman named Eleanor Rigby lies buried).

Beatles (London/Liverpool) 5

The Beatles’ concert (left) in Stockholm on October 24, 1963, is considered by many to be their best live show; The band was paid £5 for their first show at The Cavern Club (right). Photos by: Noriokanisawa/ iStock/Getty Images (map background), Werner Otto/Alamy Stock Photo/Indiapicture (people), Ilbusca/iStock Unreleased (club)

I left the quiet neighbourhood and headed to where the pre-Beatlemania action actually happened—downtown Liverpool. The harbour town has certainly capitalised on its Beatles connection with Magical Mystery bus tours and the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, and the laundry list went on to include a fancy replica of the Cavern Club (the original, where they used to be the house band was demolished long back).

I opted to down a pint at the not-so-glamorous Jacaranda (Slater Street) where they performed before their breakthrough—in the crammed basement there are murals painted by the The Beatles’ original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. One profile on the wall looked like Lennon’s face. In fact, I drank at every pub with the slightest association with them: at The Grapes on Mathew Street they had pints before heading to the Cavern Club, Ye Cracke on Rice Street is where Lennon and Cynthia (his first wife-to-be) had their first date, The Pilgrim on Pilgrim Street is famous for some Beatle thing or the other, and Philharmonic (Hope Street) was the snazziest of their local hangouts.

These pubs, which seem to have remained unchanged throughout the ages, brought me closer to them than the official Beatlemania tourism industry did—the only drawback is that a diehard fan doing all the Beatles-pubs needs a bladder the size of Liverpool’s harbour!

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?